“A man infected with leprosy must shield his upper lip and cry: ‘Unclean, unclean.’ As long as the disease lasts he must be unclean; and therefore he must live apart; he must live outside the camp.”
The Old Testament laws governing the management of leprosy, the most feared affliction of the ancient world, seem harsh and insensitive to a scientific age. This terrible disease visited the most appalling disfigurement of its victims. Perhaps even worse than the disease itself was the social isolation and alienation that the law imposed. We must, of course, set these regulations against a world that understood little of the causes of leprosy. The only way to protect society from this highly contagious disease was the strict quarantine imposed by the law.
Leprosy, of course, is not the only affliction that marginalises and excludes people from our society. In subtle, and sometimes unconscious ways, our sinful attitudes and inadequacies can make many feel as if they were lepers. The bereaved frequently speak of people crossing the street to avoid them, presumably because they do not know how to respond to their grief. Offenders who have served their sentences, and are making every effort to build a new life, frequently cannot pass beyond closed doors. Many others find themselves victimised by popular prejudices. Among these we might include, at times, the unemployed living on social welfare, immigrants and those suffering mental illness of every kind. Many, in the course of their lives, will, like the proverbial leper, have felt the pain of social isolation.
The Gospel proclaimed a salvation that challenged the prejudices and exclusions of the ancient world. No one was excluded. Nobody was beyond salvation. This fundamental truth was encapsulated in the encounter of Jesus with the leper. “A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees: ‘If you want to you can cure me.’ Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. ‘Of course I want to! Be cured!’ ”
This brief narrative records not only the healing, but the reaction of Jesus to the suffering of the leper. There was an unspoken compassion, an acceptance that went beyond words, as Jesus reached out an touched what everybody else feared and rejected. The healing was not simply physical. It was emotional. The man went away, and, with a new sense of belonging and acceptance, rejoiced to speak about Jesus.
The Gospel summons a sinful people to measure its many prejudices against the generosity with which Jesus accepted those rejected by society. Ultimately he came to be known as one who ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners, as the one who overturned the many prejudices of his own day.
It is sometimes difficult to stand beside those vilified by popular opinion. Let us pray that we, through the Lord, might become to the marginalised a means of healing and welcome.
Above all, let us remember that the Lord, who embraced the leper, will never refuse a humble and contrite heart.
The darkest isolation is never beyond Christ’s healing touch. In the words of St Paul, nothing can ever come between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus.